Bryce Edwards: Will politicians let democracy die in the darkness?

Bryce Edwards: Will politicians let democracy die in the darkness?

Politicians across the political spectrum are implicated in the New Zealand media’s failing health. Either through neglect or incompetent interventions, successive governments have failed to regulate, foster, and allow a healthy Fourth Estate that can adequately hold politicians and the powerful to account. Our political system is suffering from the actions and inactions of governments, which means that citizens have less information about public life. Therefore, to draw on the famous Washington Post tagline, New Zealand politicians are guilty of allowing democracy to die in the darkness.

New Zealand now has a public broadcasting fiasco, private media outlets going broke, and the world’s fastest plummeting public trust in the media. These trends aren’t exactly new or even unique to this country. For about two decades the media business models have been under huge challenge from changing technology and new competing businesses.

What’s new and important in New Zealand however, is that last week the media sector reached a significant crisis point, with the perfect storm of Newshub being given its final broadcast date and news of about 250 jobs, TVNZ scrapping its current affairs programmes Sunday and Fair Go and about 68 jobs, and a landmark survey showing that public trust in the media has plummeted in the last four years.

The role of politicians in the shape of the media
The current “mediapocalypse” has put the focus on the relationship between politicians and the media, with questions about what role the state should have in looking after the media sector. This isn’t a new question. The role of the state in regulating, owning, and funding media has been going on for more than a century.

In countries like New Zealand, there is normally an acceptance that the media sector is not just “another part of the economy” to be left to its own devices – it needs careful regulation and funding to ensure that it promotes a “social good” such as an enhanced democracy in which quality and diverse information and analysis are provided to the public. The “market failure” – or inability of the private sector to provide certain forms of quality, competitive media – is why public broadcasting has been established throughout the world, and why governments provide various regulations and help for private sector media.The questions that have arisen lately for the politicians include: Should the Government intervene to aid companies like TVNZ and Newshub in continuing to provide news and current affairs services? Should the current Government be providing more funding for media? What did the last government do to help media sustainability? Why do we still have a Broadcasting Act that is essentially unchanged since the 1980s? Should the Government sell-off TVNZ in order to turn RNZ into a proper multimedia broadcaster?

What is the National-led Government doing about the mediapocolyse?

The demise of Newshub has raised the question of “What is the Government going to do about it?” Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and the Minister of Broadcasting Melissa Lee have been facing increasing questions and scrutiny about their lack of action as well as their apparent lack of concern about the media industry disintegrating. Luxon has dismissed Newshub and other media layoffs as being a case of the free market in operation.Lee has caused great mirth and outrage – especially from those in the media sector – for her handling of the media crisis. Much of the time she has been invisible, rejecting requests for interviews, and when she has spoken to the media she has come across poorly. For the best overall coverage of this, see Stewart Sowman-Lund’s Spinoff article, The five most baffling moments from Melissa Lee’s post-Newshub interviews

The Government is apparently considering a proposal paper prepared by Lee and her advisers. But Lee has been incredibly vague and sometimes contradictory about the existence of the Cabinet paper, leading Newstalk broadcaster Heather du Plessis-Allan to tell Lee she was being “very weird and shady”.

Inevitably there have been suggestions that the Government should bailout Newshub, and perhaps more generally provide more funding for private media. National has shown no public signs that they are considering this, although the well-connected Taxpayers Union says that there are strong rumours in government circles that a bailout is being considered. The Greens have also come out in favour of much more direct funding for private media.

However, the public seems unconvinced about such notions. The Taxpayers Union commissioned Curia Research to poll on the issue last week, asking the following question: “You may have heard reports about the proposed closure of Newshub. Would you support or oppose taxpayer money being used to fund struggling private media companies?” The response was 55 per cent opposed a bailout, with just 29 per cent in support – see: New Zealanders oppose taxpayer-funded bailouts for private media companies

Reporting on the Government’s dilemma, The Post’s Kelly Dennett says that Luxon and Lee are having to walk a tightrope in which they can’t be seen to be overly interventionist nor callous in letting media outlets die and journalists made redundant – see: The political art of saving the media, or not (paywalled)

Dennett explains that there are two reasons that the National Government doesn’t want to be too interventionist: (1) “Appearing too quick to run to the rescue risks the same accusations of wielding too much influence on the fourth estate that the Labour Government faced”, and (2) “Luxon will be wary of being seen to be propping up one business interest over other struggling sectors”. In addition, National’s coalition partners, Act and NZ First, are much more philosophically against bailing out the media.

Whether or not the current Government can take a hands-off approach to the current crisis, there are signs that the National-led administration could be responsible for making things worse. For example, according to media specialist Daniel Dunkley writing for BusinessDesk: “Cuts to public media entities and media funding agencies, expected as part of the coalition’s efforts to slash spending by 6.5%-7.5% across government departments, could compound the sector’s misery. Independent crown entity NZ on Air is likely to be among the agencies asked to cut costs, and speculation is mounting that RNZ has also been asked to review its cost base” – see: NZME AGM: bullish on advertising and OneRoof; grilled on declining trust in news (paywalled)

What’s more, there are signs that the most recent crisis in TV has been brought about by the Government’s demands for big budget cuts in their government agencies. After the election, to meet signalled budget cuts, such departments immediately pulled right back on media advertising as the low-hanging fruit in the accounting books. When this instant hit to broadcasting advertising occurred, television channels like Newshub knew that the dream was over.

The Labour-led Government’s incompetent media actions and inactions

The most scathing criticism of Melissa Lee has been coming from Labour’s broadcasting spokesperson, Willie Jackson, who has called her “stupid”, “out of her depth”, and says that her lack of “ideas or strategies” is “shameful”. The problem, however, is that Jackson, was until recently the Broadcasting and Media minister himself, and is seen by many to have been asleep at the wheel, helping produce the current crisis. Jackson could easily be accused of all the same things he’s throwing at Lee.

While in Government over the last six years, Labour’s media policy and reforms have been rather pitiful. The party came to power in 2017 well aware of the urgent need for reform, but ended up doing very little. And what they did do arguably caused more damage – especially to RNZ and TVNZ, both of which have been mired in problems and dropping public trust.

A ham-fisted merger of RNZ and TVNZ was attempted by Labour, and cost $16m, but had to be abandoned. The Public Investigative Journalism Fund was established, but set up in a way that actually reduced public trust in the media. A digital bill was developed very late in the term in government but was widely viewed as flawed.

Now after leaving government, when this crisis has occurred, Labour has failed to put forward suggestions on how to fix the problem. After promising transformation in the media sector, after six years in government at a critical time for the media, there would be no one that could claim that the Labour Party improved the media sector during their time in charge.

Other political parties are equally lightweight on media policy. In fact, at the last election, the manifestos of the parties were essentially devoid of a “media policy”, apart from NZ First.

Media academic and former NZ Herald editor Gavin Ellis writes about some of this today in his column, Silent majority must speak out to save vital journalism He says, “Politicians, in principle, acknowledge the necessary role of journalism but, in practice, they have done too little to ensure its survival in the digital age.”

The problems of dealing with the global digital model

Politicians have largely put the media sector problems into the “too hard basket” and moved on to more interesting issues to campaign for votes on. This means that overall, there have been no real innovations from the politicians despite the dramatic changes in the media and broadcasting landscape over the last few decades. Writing on this topic for his recent Master of Public Policy thesis, David Hay, concludes: “New Zealand’s media policy framework has not changed significantly since 1989. The fundamentals have not been revisited, in the face of this fundamental technological shift, and its social and political consequences” – see: An inevitable consequence of policy failure

Gavin Ellis also writes about this today, saying: “politicians for the past two decades have failed to correct the distortionary effects of transnational digital platforms that extract huge amounts of money from this country on the endeavours of others, while creating or exacerbating a string of social ills. A multitude of laws have been allowed to become outdated.”

The problems and challenges in media policy are, however, not small. They are huge and complex. The biggest issues relate to the rise of new technologies and giant tech companies such as Meta, Google, Netflix, and even the local Trade Me platform. Such players have been able to take both audiences and advertising revenue off the traditional news media.

Politicians have frequently perpetrated the myth that the issues for New Zealand media can simply be fixed by just imposing dictates or new taxes on new global digital media platforms, this obviously isn’t going to work. The problems are bigger than that, and will ultimately need to be solved at the super-national level of politics, not here in New Zealand.

Yet even in the last week there are advocates suggesting that the New Zealand Government should and could be forcing the large digital platforms like Facebook, TikTok and Netflix to publish content from state-selected New Zealand companies, and be forced to pay for it.

Who will hold the powerful to account?
Despite the difficulties for politicians in developing robust and credible media policy, they need to be asked: “Who’s going to ask questions of authority if journalists lose their jobs?”

TVNZ’s Jack Tame has argued that in this sense, “the news business is a bit different to other businesses” and it matters a great deal to democracy when it declines. He has argued this week that “any net reduction in the total number of journalists is damaging for democracy. Regardless of the medium, it means fewer people questioning power” – see: Huge loss of journalism jobs harms us all

He points out that those who are currently being made redundant, won’t just get new jobs elsewhere in journalism, leading to a decline in people asking questions about public life: “it’s worth considering the numbers relative to New Zealand’s growing population. In 2006, New Zealand had one journalist for every 1000 people. Come July, after Sunday and Fair Go are taken off air and once Newshub officially ends operations, we will be down to one journalist for roughly every 3500 New Zealanders.”

Tame’s calculations are partly based on a recent article by the Spinoff’s Madeleine Holden, who attempted to count how many people currently work in journalism – see: How many journalism jobs are left in Aotearoa? She found that a workforce of about 4000 in 2006 is now down to 1,674 journalists, and will fall again to around 1,439 after the current wave of redundancies.

Fewer journalists and fewer media outlets will lead to less scrutiny of the powerful according to an editorial in the Otago Daily Times about the decline of television news. The newspaper argues that the existence of individual outlets like Newshub has produced important stories that would not otherwise have come out: “Gone will be stories that hold power to account, that expose injustices, that educate, that exchange and share ideas, that entertain, that help change laws. Gone are different perspectives. One example. It was TV Three’s Michael Morrah who revealed the appalling and dangerous lack of Covid testing of managed isolation and border workers despite all the false official assurances. He also revealed the failure to distribute PPE to hospitals” – see: News matters (paywalled)

The ODT also explains how this can impact on social cohesion: “When audiences have splintered and society is far more polarised, news outlets that still cater for mass audiences — like television news or the Otago Daily Times in the South — enable the potential for more unity and commonality. The politicians and the people must be aware that news matters, and that the decimation of journalism undermines democracy and society.”

Similarly, conservative political commentator Liam Hehir asks people to consider what a world with less journalism looks like: “The decline in journalism could lead to an increase in unchecked power and a greater confidence in the ability to commit wrongdoings without fear of exposure. Hence, it is crucial for us to understand and appreciate the role of journalism in maintaining transparency, accountability, and a sense of balance in society, despite its imperfections and challenges” – see: Twilight of the timber wolves (paywalled)

Hehir predicts that with the demise of outlets like Newshub, the levels of integrity in political and public life will inevitably erode: “People with influence lose their fear and become emboldened. Small corruption spread unseen. This eventually leads to bigger corruptions as tolerance sets in.”

In another column, Hehir argues that although there are problems of balance, bias, and a lack of political diversity in the current news media, this will only get worse if more journalists lose their jobs, and ultimately the powerful in society become less accountable – see: Cutting our nose off to spite our face

Here’s Hehir’s key point: “what we’re likely to see is televised news becoming more, not less of a monoculture. Less competition for stories will make it easier to set inconvenient stories aside. That increases the power of politicians and public sector leaders to fly under the radar. Going from one TV newsroom to two inevitably means less stuff that needs to be uncovered, will get uncovered. There will be less accountability, allowing those in positions of power to operate with less fear of exposure. What type of story. Well, stories like Newshub’s 2020 investigation into PPE mishandling. Or this big email screw up at MBIE. Or Civil Defence blunders during flooding last year. None of this is particularly earth-shattering, but it’s the type of work that makes government ministers sweat and which keeps officials on their toes.”

This is even more likely to occur at the level of local government, where already politicians are often making hugely consequential decisions without much media scrutiny. For an excellent example of this trend, former local councillor Gwynn Compton has explained on Linkedin his experience, which is worth quoting at length:

“As a former district councillor, I can’t stress enough how much I wished there was more media attention on what went on at our council and around the council table. The scant media focus we did receive meant that there was little public scrutiny, transparency, and accountability, which as a result led to poorer decision making and a lower standard of performance than would otherwise have been the case. For example, having journalists physically in the council chamber during meetings would have been invaluable in them seeing first-hand the poor practices, unprofessional behaviour from elected members, and inadequate processes which often played out. I can think of one project in particular where media analysis and scrutiny could’ve saved the community and council not just several years of angst, but more than $1 million in what was largely wasted spending before the plug finally was pulled. We will all be poorer for the reduction in scrutiny, transparency, and accountability of our decision makers that these job loses in the media will lead to.”

As I wrote about last month, it’s the “influence industry” of PR and lobbying that will be the big winners from the decline of the media – see: NZ’s ‘media apocalypse’ and the public relations democracy of distrust

In this regard, it’s worth noting a novel recommendation to save the media industry from someone in public relations – Leni Ma’ia’I argues for a compulsory annual levy of $3,000 to be imposed on companies for each employee working in PR – see: Here’s an idea for funding journalism: make PR professionals pay for it

While this tongue-in-cheek idea obviously won’t happen, it’s the type of innovative thinking we need to see from the politicians. Just throwing more money at the problem, or pretending that they can put the global media giants in their place won’t work. But nor will ignoring the problems, which is what politicians of all stripes have been doing for decades. Ultimately it will be democracy that pays the price.

Dr Bryce Edwards
Political Analyst in Residence, Director of the Democracy Project, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington
This article can be republished for free under a Creative Commons copyright-free license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project (